Mary Arden was the maiden name
of William Shakespeare's mother and the farm
which she grew up on still exists, run
today on Tudor lines by labourers
in period costume who tend flocks of sheep,
feed chickens, harvest apples and bake bread -
not for farming but the tourist trade.
The house is outside Stratford Upon Avon
in the village of Wilmecote, half-timbered,
wattle, daub, with random windows and
a dry-stone wall outside. Look, no cement!
The Arden family shared their ancient name
with the wilderness of Warwickshire,
The Forest of Arden, where the playwright set
his great transgender town v country farce
As You Like It, fantasising worlds
where courtiers contrast with peasants and
a boy, dressed as a girl, becomes a boy
who dresses, for the plot's sake, as a girl.
The family is of an ancient line
which can be traced back to King Edmund's time
in Saxon England. Edmond Shakespeare, William's
youngest brother, is named after him.
The Pope made Edmund, King of England, saint
when he was martyred by the pagan Vikings
in eight sixty-nine. The Danes had offered
him the chance to run a puppet state
if he renounced his faith, but he refused.
They tied him to a tree and fired arrows
at him as in this illumination
from a mediaeval manuscript.
As he dies he sees the hand of God
protruding from a cloud and blessing him
(the artist has a Monty Python touch):
his sainthood followed although not before
the Vikings had beheaded him as well.
They threw his head into a forest where
a Latin-speaking wolf discovered it
and howling 'hic, hic, hic,' or 'here, here, here'
directed Edmund's friends to where it lay.
You cannot be a saint until you're dead
and miracles have happened in your name.
A literate wolf was magical enough.
He's not a well-known king or saint today
but was the patron saint of England in
the Middle Ages ere St George replaced him.
He is the only English king to have been
martyred and the first to have been canonised.
The Ardens too retained their loyalty
to Rome when Henery the Eighth (without
a mention of whom no tour is complete)
set up an English church in opposition
to the Latin one at Rome. In other words,
the Ardens remained Roman Catholic
which actually was less unusual in
the northern parts of England than the south.
It must have hurt when Henry's zealots rode
to Bury St Edmunds where St Edmund
is buried and destroyed his ornate tomb
in fifteen thirty nine. His bones were taken
off to Arundel or maybe France.
In fact, in fifteen fifty-seven when
the Shakespeares John and Mary married, England was
once more allied to Rome, a papal state
with Bloody Mary on the throne and Latin mass
in all the churches. They'd have married in
the Roman rite. The Queen was dead without
an heir by fifteen fifty-eight and so
her stepsister Elizabeth became
the Queen. She had, she said, a preference for
her father's English language church but said
she would not be 'a window on men's souls'
and everyone could worship as they wished.
And when accordingly John Shakespeare signed
the Jesuit testamenta to confirm
his fondness for his wife's religion, he
did no more than was innocent at the time.
But later it would come to haunt him when
opinions reversed and black was white...